The Column Online

THIS. . .

by Melissa James Gibson

Stage West

Directed by Jerry Russell
Set - Jim Covault
Costumes - Jim Covault & Peggy Kruger-O'Brien
Lighting - Michael O'Brien
Sound - Jerry Russell
Props/Dressing - Lynn Lovett

Jane - Morgana Shaw
Marrell - Rhianna Mack
Tom - Ashley Wood
Alan - Randy Pearlman
Jean-Pierre/Television Host - Chip Wood

Reviewed Performance: 1/20/2011

Reviewed by Clyde Berry, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

For those looking for something different than the "standard" theater fare, Stage West's latest offering, Melissa Joan Gibson's This..., is about as fresh out of the NYC scene as a show can get. The premiere performance only closed this month, so the play selectors at Stage West can spot great material. The Obie-winning Gibson is known for her Suitcase. Or, Those That Resemble Flies From A Distance, and [sic]. She has a flair for unusual language/conversation for her characters, and is sometimes criticized for her narrative plot structure-or the lack of it. This... is a bit of a different piece for her, in that the plot is a bit more linear, but the dialog is still colorful, circular mouthfuls of plain language that is somehow heightened with more "meaning". If wordplay or banter is what you enjoy, then almost every scene provides a most stimulating discourse.

This... concerns the midlife questionings of several characters in a generic metropolitan city. A group of college friends who still spend frequent time with each other are all entering a rather speculative point in their lives. Married couple Marrell and Tom (Rhianna Mack and Ashley Wood) have a newborn and are trying to redefine/rekindle their relationship. Jane (Morgana Shaw) is still coping with the loss of her husband and trying to raise a daughter on her own. The last of the group is the witty Alan (Randy Pearlman) - gay, single, and dealing with being the lonely single in his circle of friends. Jean-Pierre is the outsider to the clique, a Frenchman who the friends are trying to fix up with Jane.

As the show progresses, the characters deal with death, loyalty, being honest with yourself and others, and the need to feel complete with someone else. All the dynamics of an interesting story are here, and most scenes function well as stand-alone moments that fit into a larger arc that sometimes seems a bit vague or slow to climax. These moments are because of the script, and most certainly not the direction nor the performances delivered.

Director Jerry Russell has excelled at making the potentially verbose and tedious dialog casual, energetic, natural, and not overwrought with "Acting". What this does is solidly establish the world of language for these characters, and the pacing for the whole production. Wordy discussions with little action can easily get hung up on ponderous potholes which Russell has smartly avoided with smart casting and subtle business.

It is quite easy to see the relationships between characters through their subtle looks, gestures, and easy bearing. The tone is appropriately serious with the humor coming from the audience's natural reactions witnessing ourselves and friends in the characters onstage. Russell's pacing doesn't linger, but does allow moments to naturally resonate, and anywhere the script slows a bit in moving forward only lasts a moment.

The set, costumes, and lights for this production have been well coordinated. An interesting use of color permeates the show. Jim Covault and Peggy Kurger-O'Brien's costumes are in muted metropolitan browns, greys, blues, blacks, and greens. These Urbanites seem to not like bright reds, yellows, and oranges, which aren't found in Covault's set design, nor in Michael O'Brien's lights. This makes the children's toys, part of the props from Lynn Lovett stand out even more. Everyone looks natural in their attire, whether it is casual, eveningwear, or smart daily wear. The multiple locations are served well by the set design and isolated lighting.

With an appropriate and believable accent, Chip Wood is an excellent odd-man-out. His character, Jean-Pierre, serves as an excellent counterpoint and reality check to the other characters. While he has the least stage time, his performance has the precise timing and punch needed for the role.

As the couple, Rhianna Mack and Ashley Wood have a challenging dynamic to portray. While their marriage is troubled, they balance well how much to show to their friends. Mack, who was so expressive in Amphibian's No Child, delivers a much more vocally reserved character that makes her facial expressions and body language all the more telling. I was hoping for a bit more from her jazz singer moments, but it doesn't help that one scene has her singing upstage. Wood does well as the distracted husband, nicely balancing guilt, happiness, and moralizing.

As Alan, Randy Pearlman is a standout with his carefully measured portrayal of gay, alcoholic, and lonely man. Pearlman avoids every stereotype in every facet of his role and delivers a fresh and honest character. With great timing he, like Wood's character, provides commentary on the relationships around him that add color and depth to the scenes. In his later monologues he is heartbreaking as he comes to terms with where he is in life and where he wants to be.

Likewise, Morgana Shaw, as Jane, has some great material to chew on that brings us much closer to having a connection to her in this production. Shaw's Jane is pensive, soft, fragile, and painfully trying to not make things worse. While Jane is not always successful in what she tries to do, Shaw succeeds in portraying the small triumphs and major failures with style and heart. She also has one heck of a monologue in Act II.

If you like the wordplay of something like Oleanna, the drama of something like Arthur Miller, with a dollop of humor ... This... is a good choice for you.

Stage West
821 Vickery Boulevard, Fort Worth, TX 76104 (817) 784-9378
Through February 13th, 2011

**There will be a special Valentine's Day Eve brunch before their performance on February 13th.

Regular times will be Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays/Saturdays at 8:00 pm, with Sunday matinees at 3:00pm.

Ticket prices range from $26 to $30, with discounts for students and seniors.

Food service is available 90 minutes prior to performances (reservations are generally necessary),